Climate Lawsuit Takes Aim at Austrian Tax Breaks on Air Travel

The lawsuit targets national tax exemptions on aviation fuel, which critics say increases use of carbon-heavy jet travel.

by | Mar 2, 2020

Austria's Constitutional Court (Photo GEORG HOCHMUTH/AFP via Getty Images)

Austria’s government is violating its citizens’ human rights by enacting policies that worsen the climate crisis, according to an environmental group suing to overturn the policy in the country’s Constitutional Court in Vienna on behalf of more than 8,000 Austrians.

The lawsuit targets national tax exemptions on aviation fuel, which Greenpeace Austria and the co-plaintiffs allege have made air travel cheaper than more carbon-friendly train travel This violates the government’s duty to protect its citizens’ human rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, they argue, and can only be corrected by repealing the tax break.

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of fundamental and human rights,” said Michaela Krömer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a press release. “Through the climate complaint, we want to ensure that the fundamental rights of Austrians are adequately protected by the state.”

Climate scientist and co-plaintiff Helga Kromp-Kolb added that Austrian policymakers must take climate impacts into account.

“Current legislation has to be climate-friendly—obsolete passages that do not take into account the climate impact of the means of transportation must be a thing of the past,” she said.

Austria’s winter tourism industry, which accounted for nearly 5 percent of the Austrian economy in 2010, is particularly vulnerable to climate change. As temperatures continue to rise, the number of ski resorts with reliable, natural snow cover is expected to decrease, threatening the jobs of one in every 14 Austrian residents. Glaciers are close to half the size they were in 1900. Between September 2016 and October 2017 they receded by an average of 46.5 feet, and scientists predict they will completely melt by 2100.

This is not the first climate-related legal action to rely on the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Netherlands Supreme Court recently upheld a landmark ruling in Urgenda v. the Netherlands, citing Articles 2 and 8 of the human rights treaty to state governments have a human rights duty to protect their citizens from climate change. The court has ordered the Dutch government to consider the latest climate science when setting policies, and to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

Lawsuits inspired by Urgenda in the U.S., Norway, Pakistan, Ireland, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand have all asserted that governments have a human rights duty to protect their citizens from climate change.

Greenpeace announced the suit in December, when the environmental organization invited Austrian residents who could prove they were affected by the air travel tax break to join case. Since then, 8,060 Austrians have signed on. Most proved they had legal standing to join the case by presenting receipts for train travel.

While air travel is 31 times worse for the climate than traveling by train, according to the suit, the cost of flying is cheaper due to the government’s tax exemptions on airplane fuel for both domestic and international flights.

According to a 2019 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation, passenger aviation creates around 2.4 percent of the world’s heat-trapping carbon pollution, or about 918 million metric tons, and is on pace to more than triple by 2050.

If the Constitutional Court accepts the suit, it could give legislators a deadline for repealing the tax regulations or could order them to be immediately repealed. The court will likely announce its decision in the spring.

“I have eight grandchildren and I never want to be asked by them why I didn’t act,” Gerhard Zoubek, an organic farmer who has joined the case said in a statement. “It is now up to us to push climate-friendly legislation forward.”

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Karen Savage is an investigative journalist who has reported on climate change-related itigation, environmental justice, policing, and other social justice issues. Her work has appeared in Climate Docket, Undark Magazine, In These Times, Project Earth, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Truthout, City Limits, and more. Karen is an alum of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she won the Sidney Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting.